Not all of these technologies will make it out of the concept stage, and many are decades away from becoming practical. What may seem weird today might just be a reality in the future.

Unorthodox Forms of Alternative Energy

Len Calderone for | AltEnergyMag

Alternative energy is that which is produced without the undesirable consequences inherent in fossil fuel, which produces high carbon dioxide emissions, a factor in global warming and unclean air. Alternative energy is typically derived from nontraditional sources, such as compressed natural gas, solar, biofuel, hydroelectric, and wind.

There are various organizations within the academic, federal, and industrial sectors, which are performing advanced research in the field of alternative energy. Wind and solar are still more expensive than oil and coal; and these may not be the best solution for all places or uses. Therefore, new research is investigating several areas of focus across the alternative energy spectrum.

Because of the need to find abundant, cheap and efficient energy by investigating lesser-known resources, there are sources that may seem a little unusual, even ridiculous, unrealistic, and weird.

Let’s look at some of these weird forms of alternative energy, starting with tornados. Harnessing the power of a tornado could power entire cities.  By pumping warm, humid air into an Atmospheric Vortex Engine (AVE), a chamber 650 feet wide with 300 foot tall walls, an artificial tornado can be created.

The rotation of the tornado would then power wind turbines at the chamber inlets, creating enough electricity to power a small town. Waste heat from power plants can be the source for the warm air since they typically reject more than half of the heat they generate.

One method of alternative energy might seem a bit morbid. A crematorium in the UK is using the gases released from the cremation process to warm the mourners in attendance. Normally, this energy source is wasted. The energy from cremated bodies is already being controlled, since it has to pass through filters to remove the mercury in the deceased’s fillings. The only change would be pumping that energy into the building’s heating system rather than allowing it to escape.

We go from the morbid to the yucky. Poop produces methane. Although methane is a greenhouse gas, it can be harnessed and used as a renewable source. At Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, researchers are working on a novel alternative. They've developed a state-of-the-art toilet for use in developing countries that employs microwaves to chemically alter human waste into syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. While Delft's plan to turn poop into energy may seem a little strange, drastic times call for drastic measures.

Billions of baby diapers are thrown away in landfills each year, and now a Japanese company, Super Faiths, is doing something about it. This company's recycling system pulverizes, sterilizes, and compacts diapers into flammable fluffy fuel chips for use in biomass energy generators.

In Kern County, Calif., a company called BioEnergy Solutions developed a method for extracting methane from cow excrement and converting it to a biogas fuel that's of sufficient quality to be fed into a standard natural gas pipeline. It produces 650,000 cubic feet of biogas from manure, enough to power 200,000 households

Refining animal byproducts, such as fat, by grinding them up, mixing them with water, and cooking the slop creates a biofuel. Over millions of years, the Earth broke down plant and animal material to produce the oil that we now use. This is basically a sped-up version of the natural process.

While we’re discussing the yucky, humans and animals expel urine as a form of waste, but this fluid is actually very rich in nitrogen and other chemicals, which are a source of power for microbial fuel cells that break down and convert waste into energy. NASA has been researching and developing this technology for years. In all probability, it won't be long before toilets flow into a fuel cell instead of the sewer.

Fusing art, architecture, and renewable energy, Californian, Michael Jantzen created the Wind Shaped Pavilion.

As a lightweight fabric structure, the wind slowly and randomly rotates each of the six segments around a central open support frame. This continually alters the shape of the pavilion, while at the same time generating electrical power for its nighttime illumination. The shape of the structure starts out as a relatively symmetrical form. Then the wind begins to alter that shape randomly, with only a slim chance of ever returning to its original symmetry.

The obsession with text messaging can be annoying, but what if each of those finger taps could generate power? The concept, Push to Charge, relies on piezoelectricity, which is a fancy way of describing the way some metals generate electricity when hit.

The Push-to-Charge cell phone would feature plastic buttons sitting atop a layer of hard metal. The bottom layer would be made out of piezoelectric crystals, so that each time someone pressed a button, the hard metal directly underneath it would hit the underlying crystal like a hammer, creating a small amount of voltage. Small wires located between the layers would convey the charge to a battery for storage. Just add all the buttons required to send a single text message. Then, multiply that by the number of text messages sent each day. That's a lot of wattage. Generating power simply by typing on a keyboard or keeping in touch with your friends is a pretty good concept.

Depending on the particular coffee bean used in a brew, coffee grounds can contain as much as 20 percent oil. This oil has an unusually high oxidative stability. Subsequently, a method to remove the sulfur found in coffee biodiesel, which comes from the volcanic soils in the mountainous regions where coffee generally is grown. The resulting fuel was sufficient to meet the standards set by ASTM International, an international testing organization, for biodiesel.

Researchers estimate that if all the waste grounds generated by the world's coffee drinkers were gathered and reprocessed, the yield would amount to 2.9 million gallons of diesel fuel each year. Alternatively, the coffee grounds could be converted to fuel pellets. If all of the leftover grounds from Starbucks were reprocessed, they would produce 89,000 tons of such fuel pellets annually.  

If you prefer beer to coffee, Adnams PLC, a brewer founded in 1872 created an anaerobic digester, a grass-roofed facility that takes the brewery's waste and transforms it into gas, which is sold back to the national grid.

The plant also produces liquid fertilizer. The Adnams Bio Energy's anaerobic plant in Suffolk is an excellent example of how waste can be made useful by turning it into green energy.

SPS-ALPHA (Solar Power Satellite via Arbitrarily Large Phased Array) is a novel, biomimetic approach to the challenge getting solar power from space. The idea is to construct huge platforms of tens of thousands of small elements that can deliver -remotely and affordably - thousands of megawatts using wireless power transmission to markets on Earth.

Space-Based Energy Factory, SPS-ALPHA

SPS-ALPHA uses a large array of individually controlled thin-film mirrors, outfitted on the curved surface of the satellite. These movable mirrors intercept and redirect incoming sunlight toward photovoltaic cells affixed to the backside of the solar power satellite's large array. The Earth-pointing side of this large modular circular array is tiled with a collection of microwave-power transmission panels that generate the coherent, low-intensity beam of radio frequency energy and transmits that energy to Earth.

Not all of these technologies will make it out of the concept stage, and many are decades away from becoming practical. What may seem weird today might just be a reality in the future.



Len Calderone - Contributing Editor



Len has contributed articles to several publications. He also writes opinion editorials for a local newspaper. He is now retired.


Len Calderone


The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag

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